Fresh from the 4 The Young Ones conference at ILC IH Brno in the Czech Republic today, here’s a summary of the talk I just gave (twice) on word and sentence stress. I didn’t just rustle this up in the lunch break in Brno – I wrote this last week so I’ll add any interesting insights from the QandA later on!
*I must insert an important point here* Most conferences are great because they give the presenters and attendees a warm glow of satisfaction at having added to their professional development. However, my main motivation in teacher training is not self-gratification, but that the new techniques, attitudes and information trickle down to those who really matter: the learners. I worked with 40 teachers today; if all of these apply the techniques we looked at to improve word and sentence stress to 100 learners, that’s 4,000 in total. That´s true impact. That’s why I urged the teachers not to keep this to themselves, and let me know how the techniques worked (or didn’t) in their teaching contexts.
Why this topic?
As Adrian Underhill’s brilliant course in July opened my eyes to (amongst many other things), pronunciation is the Cinderella of ELT, crowded out by its ‘ugly sisters’ grammar and vocabulary, a misunderstood physical skill trapped in a cognitive world. As he said, every encounter with language is a pron lesson, not just speaking:
- Listening effectively requires understanding the pronunciation features.
- Reading and writing require an inner voice to pronounce the words silently.
- Grammar and vocabulary are spoken and heard, which means the pronunciation features alongside the written form.
So what are the pronunciation features I’m referring to? According to Jennifer Jenkins’ Lingua Franca Core, core features are necessary for intelligibility, whereas the non-cores take English users to the next level:
|The first essentials (LFC core)
||The next level (LFC non-core)
|Consonants – pet vs. peck.
Consonant clusters – strong, winter.
Vowel length – bins vs. beans.
Nuclear stress – Stressing different words for different meaning. What do YOU want to do tonight? vs What do you want to do TONIGHT?
Schwa and weak forms
Connected speech features
Substitutions of ‘th’ – zh, s, f.
Of course the LFC core features are vital, but my experience with intermediate to advanced kids, teens and adults tells me that word and sentence stress are too often neglected, and often provide the last piece of the puzzle for learners to access higher levels of English intelligibility.
Word stress is often the gap between ‘knowing’ a word and being able to hear and say it, and this is a gap worth filling. Stress is caused by one or more of: volume, pitch, length, quality.
‘English language learners tend to ignore stress when they learn vocabulary. And failure to learn the stress of new words often leads to an inability to recognise those words in spoken form’ – J.B. Gilbert, 2008.
Pronunciation is a physical skill, so we should teach it physically and visually rather than cognitively (another lesson internalised after Adrian Underhill’s course). As my colleague Marina J here at IH Riga told me, “if you watch karate, can you become a champion?” :-).
There are rules, yes, but there are just as many exceptions. Anyway, as Adrian says, it’s a physical skill, so should be processed as such:
‘I don’t want learners to be sidetracked by cognitive rules with limited application…the best rule is to be alert, to notice what you are doing and what the language is doing, and to reflect’ – Adrian Underhill, 1994.
1) Mark the stressed syllable when you write vocabulary on the board (with a dot, a line or a blob – anything that doesn’t look like an L1 accent!).
This is painfully basic, I know, but it’s just not common practice. “I don’t have time to teach word stress” really isn’t an excuse.
2) Number bingo with 13, 14, 15, 16, 17, 18, 19, 30, 40, 50, 60, 70, 80, 90.
13 or 30? 14 or 40? 15 or 50? The difference lies in the stress – on the second syllable for the teens, first syllable for the multiple of 10. If our job is to arm learners with useful English in their everyday lives, imagine a haggle at a market if you can’t distinguish between these numbers! You could play bingo with only these numbers to practice this – but only on a 3 by 3 grid, as there are only 14 possible options.
3) Stretch the stress
Rubber band per learner. Say a word and stretch the band with the stressed syllable. Experiment with stretching the wrong syllable (sometimes the word becomes unrecognisable) and have some fun with it! This helps people to have a visual prompt and ‘see’ the stress by giving the stress a physical movement – pronunciation practice as physical and visual, remember!
4) Standing stress
Arrange learners in chairs in lines of 3s and 4s. Give the 3s a list of 3 syllable words and and the 4s a list of 4 syllable words. Each learner says a syllable, and only the stressed syllable stands as he/she says it. Again, pronunciation as physical and visual, getting away from traditional call and repeat.
Sentence stress if often missed out of coursebooks altogether, or reserved for higher levels such as the English File Advanced group I’ve been teaching. But it’s as fundamental to intelligibility as sounding out the A, B, C.
‘If stressed words determine how we say the intervening unstressed structure words, why then to course books start with the single phonemes and go on to ‘connected’ speech? Sentence stress would be a far easier guide to speaking.’ – Brita Haycraft (co-founder of International House).
So what gets stressed and what doesn’t?
1) STRESSED: Content words – verbs, nouns, adjectives, numerals, adverbs.
2) UNSTRESSED: Structure words – Make sentence gramatically correct – Pronouns, prepositions, articles, conjunctions, auxiliary verbs.
You can see this clearly in this voice recording I made on the GarageBand programme. Try to find the words – I’ve never been to Brno before.
I’ve NEV er BEEN to BRRRNOOOO before
In the classroom, give out sentences (you can include recent grammar points, perhaps) and have students find the stress, then practice saying the sentence with the stress in the right places. The instant change in intelligibility and speaking quality is quite astounding, actually.
Another important and neglected point about English is that as a stress-timed language (as opposed to syllable-timed), the stressed words in a sentence are said with approximately the same interval between each.
You can introduce this concept in the classroom by clapping, banging or stomping to create a steady rhythm (physical, visual): 1, 2, 3, 4. Then add the stressed words (these are all images of my voice using the GarageBand programme):
SELL CAR GONE FRANCE
Then, keeping the rhythm, add some unstressed words between them:
SELL my CAR I’ve GONE to FRANCE
Then, still keeping the rhythm, add some more unstressed words:
Can you SELL my old CAR cos I’ve GONE to live in FRANCE
It’s also worth mentioning how we stress words to give sentences a certain emphasis, as this is also common in English and runs against the neutral sentence stress concept above.
In the classroom, give out sentences (below) or have learners come up with their own, giving different contexts to the sentence so different words are stressed accordingly.
As always, any questions or comments, write below or get in touch at firstname.lastname@example.org.